HC Deb 29 March 1972 vol 834 cc803-15

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House at its rising this day do adjourn till Monday, 10th April.—[Mr. Maudling.]

11.22 a.m.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

An important question of principle is involved here, and yesterday the acting Leader of the House and I had some exchanges about it. The House is being asked to agree to an unprecedented procedure. It is quite true that there have been occasions when, on the day before the House has risen for a Recess a Motion of this kind has been tabled, but that happens only very rarely. The usual practice is for a Motion such as this to appear on the Order Paper some days before the actual Adjournment is due to take place. There is absolutely no precedent whatsoever for tabling this kind of Motion at the end of Government business.

This is a dangerous precedent. In the past, such a Motion has come up for discussion at 3.30, at the end of Questions, and that practice has provided back-bench Members with an opportunity to raise various matters which lead them to think that the House should not adjourn until the problems involved in those matters have been dealt with.

The practice that has been followed by the Government in this instance represents a diminution in the rights of private Members. When questioned on the subject yesterday, the acting Leader of the House said that the situation was very abnormal, but in my view this Motion should have been tabled last week. There was no reason for its not having been tabled, say, last Thursday, instead of the Government using the excuse of the Irish problem for dealing with the Motion in this way. I should like a categorical assurance from the Government that this present instance, which is without precedent, will never be repeated and will, indeed, not be regarded as a precedent.

Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) asked in specific terms: Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake not to do it again? The acting Leader of the House replied: I accept that it is a wholly abnormal procedure. It is quite unavoidable in the circumstances."—[Official Report 29th March, 1972; Vol. 834, c. 439.] The right hon. Gentleman did not give the undertaking for which he had been asked, and I ask him to give it now. If we allow what perhaps I may be permitted to call this unprecedented precedent to go without challenge, it will represent a diminution of the rights of hon. Members.

I want to draw to the attention of the Government the hardship suffered by owner-occupiers, referred to in early day Motion No. 264. The Government have promised legislation to deal with the type of case in which an owner-occupier who has agreed to buy a house for £3,000 or £4,000 is, as the result of a compulsory purchase order, offered only £500 or £600 for his house. I do not wish to detain the House any longer than is necessary, but I should like to quote the case of a constituent who bought his house in 1963 for £3,200. He paid £950 cash down, and obtained an advance of £2,250 by way of mortgage from the Greater London Council. As a result of a compulsory purchase order made several years later, he is now being offered only £500 or £600 for the House.

That case is typical of many cases in which owner-occupiers are brought to the verge of destitution and ruin as a result of the operation of present legislation. As I say, we have been promised some legislation by the Government, but I seek to impress upon the acting Leader of the House the need to bring the matter to the notice of his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment so that these cases of cruel hardship may be dealt with at the earliest possible moment.

11.29 a.m.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

I wish to draw attention to the likely "go slow" being proposed by B.E.A. pilots backed by the British Air Line Pilots Association. It seems that quite regularly nowadays employees in the aviation industry choose holiday periods to disrupt air services. The pilots have done this before, and it now appears to be happening again. The B.E.A. pilots are apparently in dispute with the airline on a number of points, but the basic issue is a pay increase. They have said that if it had been conceded all the other differences could have been resolved.

In the past year the airline has lost £2 million, notwithstanding the fact that the Government have made available to it special grants of about £8 million. The pilots are asking for a rise at the top level of about 12 per cent. They have already been offered £782 to £981, which is £14 to £18 a week—a rather bigger rise than the total income of some of our old-age pensioners. The pilots are men who by any standards are very high earners at the top level. It is true that not all of them earn between £7,000 and £8,000, but even a junior pilot who comes out of training school is earning over £2,300 a year.

I should have thought that the pilots of all people—intelligent, educated, expert men in their own field—could have resolved their differences without taking go-slow action at a time when people are going away on their Easter holidays. I appeal to them that the effects of the go-slow, in so far as it begins, should be muted over the holiday period, that they should not take advantage of their go-slow in the early days to disrupt the public.

If they do, it will mean a number of things. First, the public will be completely disenchanted with their case in any event. They will not be very impressed by people earning that sort of money taking extreme action to press their case for a percentage rise much beyond what is being given nationally and what is the norm. Secondly, they will do damage to their own airline, which gives them good conditions of work and of which I believe any one of them would say he was justly proud. Thirdly, they will lose a large amount of business for B.E.A., because clearly even at this time many people will switch to other airlines run by other countries, such as Air France and a number of others that run across the same routes. That will only add to the existing losses, making it difficult in the long run for the airline to give the kind of wage rises that would be accepted as normal and would be generally acceptable.

The pilots also make it particularly difficult for other people working for the airline. Airlines do not consist merely of those who fly aeroplanes. The pilots are backed up by very large staffs whose work benefits the service. They serve the public in all sorts of ways. If the pilots disrupt the service to force their claim, the airline will have to examine the pay claims of other people earning a good deal less, right down the line. B.E.A. has said that it cannot afford to give the pilots too high an increase in isolation or to give a large rise to the whole of its staff. It has indicated that it is prepared to be reasonable.

Seeking to disrupt the public at holiday time, taking them for a ride—or preventing them from going for a ride if they are going away for their Easter holidays—is not generally acceptable. I hope that the B.E.A. pilots and the British Air Line Pilots Association, which represents them, will recognise that they have a responsibility to the public, particularly the travelling public, to the airline they serve and to the other staffs employed in it. I hope they will desist from the kind of activity we have known in the past and which is again threatened this Easter.

11.35 a.m.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Willesden, West)

Yesterday I asked at Business Question time for time to be found to debate the very important report received that day from the Expenditure Committee on private practice and the National Health Service. I raise the matter today because such controversial reports are hot news for a short time when they arrive, but if the Government defer the debate on them the temperature dies down, and the points to which we wish to draw attention are much more difficult to make once the pressure has gone off.

I am protesting against the report as an abuse of the House. I accept that it is within the rules of order. The way in which a Select Committee works cannot be altered from the Floor of the House; it is done through the usual procedural ways.

The report had to be agreed. Because the subject was highly controversial, the minority on the Committee could not put in it matters that it was the object of the exercise to discuss when the subject was chosen. The Opposition moved 16 amendments, all of which were defeated, as must happen because of our procedure.

But there is sufficient material to cause concern, especially in the evidence from junior hospital doctors. There is the problem, which will affect many of our constituents, of queue-jumping, with a deferred service for others, merely because a consultant is part time and not full time. The problem is particularly acute in gynaecology, where private practice impinges perhaps the most on middle-aged females. Because it is possible to obtain private treatment, such patients can obtain a bed more quickly. Their illnesses are not of the kind from which they are likely to die, but they are in acute discomfort, and they can suffer it for six to 10 months. Any hon. Member who checks his local hospital waiting lists will find that that the gynaecological list is usually the longest. But the private patient can obtain a bed very quickly, and it is worth paying a fee to the consultant to lose the discomfort.

The report reveals an abuse of the National Health Service in that although the patient may pay the consultant a fee she does not of necessity have a private bed. She may have a National Health Service bed, because the consultant is the only person to decide on the admission. The evidence from the Junior Hospital Doctors' Association, the Socialist Medical Association and the Medical Practitioners' Union shows that there is a widespread abuse, and the matter needs to be discussed.

Therefore, I am asking that we should have a debate rather than go away for the Easter Recess, although I am certain that after a long sitting I should not be too popular if my request were granted. I sometimes wonder what would happen if the House decided that we should not go away but should come in on the first day of the Recess to discuss something like private practice or the airline pilots.

It gives us the opportunity from the back benches to say as strongly as we can to the Government that here is an issue affecting millions of our people. We are talking mainly in terms of our constituents. This is an issue which is supremely important and, even after a long night's sitting, is worthy of bringing to the attention of the House. I urge the Government, even though we decide to pass this Motion and adjourn, to find time for a debate as soon as we get back, before this subject gets cold.

There is a first-class leader in The Guardian today giving a good deal of the general feeling about this and saying that the general feeling of the country may well be out of line with the findings of the sub-committee of the Expenditure Committee. It is right that the House should discuss this important report.

11.41 a.m.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

There are two issues which I seek to raise initially and which I can put quite crisply. First there is a proposal, which must be dealt with as a matter of urgency, to close down school camps in Scotland. This would be a great pity at the moment because, as prices rise, it becomes more and more difficult for many children who had previously gone abroad on educational cruises to have this kind of holiday. It is absolute folly that good camps which have served the community for many years and which are in good condition should be closed down.

I know that the Under-Secretary of State at the Scottish Office, to whom I gave warning that I would raise this subject, is sympathetic. I ask the acting Leader of the House to pass on the request that this should be reconsidered because it is a matter of urgency.

The second matter I wish to raise concerns the House as a whole and the question I put to the acting Leader of the House yesterday on the timing of a debate on the Report of the Rothschild Committee. The other place has had two full days of debate on this highly controversial report on the Research Councils. It looks as though the House of Commons is not to have any chance, even for half a day, to express a view until such time as decisions are made. It was put forward as a Green Paper and, although the Government must be very pressed for time, it is extremely unsatisfactory that on such a contentious issue which not only filled the correspondence columns of The Times for many weeks but which affects a great many of my constituents, we should not be able to find time for a debate.

Anyone who has been to a meeting of a research council knows what I am talking about. My hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt) is a member of the Medical Research Council and he knows that this matter affects the future of a great many people. It is extremely unsatisfactory that the other place should have debated this for two days yet it looks as if we shall not get any satisfaction in our fight to have a debate before the White Paper is published.

The third issue is something that may seem a bit esoteric, at least for the House of Commons but it is certainly not esoteric for sectors of British industry. It is a subject on which I had hoped to question the Prime Minister at Question Time today, had that been possible, and it concerns the decision on the answer we have to give to the Americans whether this country does or does not participate in America's post-Apollo programme. The reason why I raise this is that a decision is becoming more and more urgent. This is concerned with a programme of 5,500 million dollars. It also concerns the whole future of the electronics industry in this country.

Specifically I have tried to pursue it through every parliamentary opportunity available, including resorting to tabling 40 oral Questions, which I do not normally do, to the Ministry of Defence so that it should at least be discussed in Whitehall. To be frank with the acting Leader of the House, I gather that since I did this there has been some serious discussion for the first time in the higher echelons of the Government machine. I took the opportunity during the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill to raise this and to point out certain inaccuracies given, albeit unwittingly, by the Under-secretary of State for Trade and Industry in his wind-up speech. In the course of this speech the Minister said: This programme has had presidential approval but has yet to go through Congress, and it is anyone's guess what shape it will be in when it leaves Congress. If the Government believe that they will be relieved of having to make a decision on this issue by an adverse Congress vote in the coming months they will be disappointed. The information from the States, from the State Department, N.A.S.A., the Pentagon and industry all suggests that the opposition in Congress will be nothing like as strong as that against the S.S.T. and that it will be overcome. I do not think that the Government can take refuge in thinking that it will never happen.

The Minister went on to say a little later, referring to the original offer from the United States to Europe and other countries: No suggestions were made as to the type or extent of the participation. This is an extraordinary thing to say since the proposal made by the Americans was specifically to the effect that European companies should join with the American sub-contractors in the phase B part of the programme which was then about to start and that European countries could also in the meantime, if they wished, study such things as the Tug. There were several visits by senior N.A.S.A. officials to Governments and industry in Europe to clarify their proposals and it was on the basis of these visits and corresponding visits made by B.A.C. and Hawker Siddeley to the United States that B.A.C. took the initiative in the summer of 1970 to join North American Rockwell and General Dynamics in the phase B study. That is definitely inaccurate.

The Minister said later: …in financial and resource terms Europe has not yet got a precise offer to which to respond…". This is an incredible statement to make bearing in mind that N.A.S.A. sent senior missions over to Europe in December, 1971, and in February, 1972, to explain in detail to the European Communities the precise nature of the offer it was making. This included spelling out in detail the particular packages on the shuttle on which it thought participation by European companies was practicable. Among these packages were the three packages which B.A.C. identified in the course of its work with North American Rockwell and for which B.A.C. carried the entire responsibility in the final report which North American Rockwell submitted to N.A.S.A. at the end of phase B.

The Minister went on: The Government are currently considering whether the United Kingdom should participate in these further studies. This is precisely the point on which France and Germany have already agreed to provide some funding of their companies, and the failure of the British Government to reach a decision is greatly handicapping us in our negotiations with European companies on the studies required. In the penultimate paragraph of his speech, referring to B.A.C. and Hawker Siddeley the Minister said: …both organisations have sub-contracts from two of the American prime contractors and have been carrying out feasibility studies on the shuttle."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th March, 1972; Vol. 833, c. 1301–3.] The Government will be aware that there have been no sub-contracts from the American prime contractors to either B.A.C. or Hawker Siddeley and the work which both companies did was directed towards finding suitable work packages and assessing the case for and against continuing participation. There was never any question of British companies carrying out feasibility studies on the shuttle.

I would not bother the House with this were it not for the fact that there are important centres of the British electronics industry involved, leaving aside Hawker Siddeley and B.A.C, who feel that until last month at any rate there has been considerable indecision in the Government machine. If anyone doubts the importance of this subject there are those in the technical sphere in this country who say that just as we perhaps missed our chance in Messina in 1955 so again we may, technically rather than politically, perhaps be missing our chance in not paying sufficient attention to the American offer on the big air sortie module because if we do not make up our minds by the summer they will go ahead without us.

Finally, a matter I wished to put to the Prime Minister today, and have done in writing and elsewhere, is that if there are problems with the machinery of government then the Department of Trade and Industry has far too much to do. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Carter) present. He may reflect that it is strange that a Secretary of State who has to deal with the troubles of the Vehicle and General Insurance Company, with shipbuilding and a myriad of other problems should also have to deal with this matter. Perhaps it would be much better if it were placed in the Defence Department. Participation in space would give incentives to potential high-grade technical recruits to the R.A.F.

The assurance which I hope the right hon. Gentlemen will give is that a senior member of the Government, either the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State for Defence, will give his mind to what is happening in the lower echelons in Whitehall and Westminster and consider what sort of response this country ought to be giving to the Americans. If I have that assurance, I shall be happy, and so will British industry, which is more important.

11.50 a.m.

Mr. Jeffrey Archer (Louth)

I rise only to say that I support the case put by the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) because I have two constituents in the same position as his constituents, both losing their savings on a small house by this rule. I hope that my right hon. Friend the acting Leader of the House will impress on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment that this feeling is not confined to right hon. and hon. Members opposite but is shared by right hon. and hon. Members on this side of the House as well.

11.51 a.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Reginald Maudling)

As acting Leader of the House of Commons I am replying to the debate, but I am doing so as a very temporary Leader of the House as I must make clear. I shall, of course, make it my business to pass on all the points raised in the debate to the new Leader of the House when he is appointed.

On the procedural point, I sympathise with what was said by the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton). I would only point out to him that an exceptional situation made it necessary to proceed in this way. I could not guarantee that such an exceptional situation might not occur in the future. It arose in this case because of the Northern Ireland situation intervening in the Budget debate. Although one cannot guarantee that such a situation will not occur again, we shall of course try to avoid it.

I will, of course, discuss with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment the hard case quoted by the hon. Member for Brixton and by my hon. Friend the Member for Louth (Mr. Jeffrey Archer). I sympathise with the considerable discomfort and disquiet of those concerned.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Kenneth Lewis) raised the question of the dispute between B.E.A. and the British Air Line Pilots Association which comes at an extremely inconvenient time for the public. I am sure the House would regret the disruption of airline services over the Easter period. My hon. Friend may be aware that, following the recommendation of the National Joint Council for Civil Air Transport on 27th March, the Department of Employment invited the representatives of both sides to discuss their differences under the Department's chairmanship. I am afraid that this was not successful. The association made it clear that it was only prepared to meet B.E.A. if the Corporation had made a further offer. Not surprisingly, this in turn was not acceptable to the corporation. The Department felt that no agreed means could be found for resolving the issue, although it informed both the association and the corporation that it remained ready to give whatever assistance the parties might find helpful. I hope that both parties to the dispute—in particular, those who do not seem to want to go ahead and discuss—will think again, not only in the interests of the travelling public, which are very great, but in the interests of the other people also employed in B.E.A. and in the interests of the future of the airline itself, which is the foundation of the living standards of all it employs.

The hon. Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt) raised again the question of the Report of the Select Committee on Hospital Services and made some powerful, substantial points in arguing that this had to be dealt with before the House rose today. Obviously, this is a matter that gives cause for concern among hon. Members opposite and is of great interest to the public. I will certainly represent to the new Leader of the House the feeling that there should be a debate at the earliest opportunity it is possible to arrange one.

The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) raised three points. The first concerned the closing of school camps in Scotland, which I will refer to my right hon. Friend concerned. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman referred to the Rothschild Report, which he is anxious to debate. As he said, the other place has had more than one discussion of it and, if I may say so, seems to have had a rumbustious time in doing so. It is an important matter and I can only say now that I will pass on his representations to the new Leader of the House.

The hon. Gentleman's third point concerned the post-Apollo programme. We in the Government are well aware of this problem. It is a complicated matter both in technical detail and possible financial commitment. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that both my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Government as a whole are well aware of the importance of the issue.

Mr. Dalyell

I would like an assurance for those with whom I have been working in British industry that the Prime Minister is taking a deep personal interest and that he will get advice not only from senior members of the Civil Service, who may not be advised about the details, but also from the middle ranks.

Mr. Maudling

I assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will take advice from any source he considers appropriate. I can certainly give him the assurance of my right hon. Friend's personal interest and keen awareness of the importance of the matter.

Mr. Pavitt

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for referring the matters I raised for debate to the new Leader of the House, whoever he may be. Will he also discuss with his colleagues the other point I raised—that the whole question of a Select Committee being a watchdog on the Government and being able to be critical of the Government becomes a little upside-down when the case is the other way round?

Mr. Maudling

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for not mentioning that point. I had intended to say that I would naturally pass on his views to the new Leader of the House as well.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House at its rising do adjourn till Monday, 10th April.

Mr. Speaker

I propose to suspend the sitting, and for the convenience of right hon. and hon. Members the Division bells will ring shortly before the sitting resumes.

Sitting suspended at 11.55 a.m.

Sitting resumed.

12.51 p.m.

Mr. Speaker

I have to acquaint the House that a message has been brought from the Lords by one of their Clerks, as follows: The Lords have agreed to the Northern Ireland (Temporary Provisions) Bill, without amendment.

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